Yesterday we managed to outrun the wind and rain to make it safely to Whitby on the sunny Yorkshire coast. Today we are well rested and eager to head out and explore the iconic little town that serves as the backdrop for the latter part of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It was in 1890 that Bram Stoker first came to stay at a cliff-top guesthouse, and his morning walks soon started to shape the latest project he was working on – a tale set in Austria about a man called Count Wampyr.
Our own digs are just around the corner from where Bram himself stayed, and so we retrace the route he would have taken over a century ago. Starting from his guest house at 6 Royal Crescent, we reach the cliff’s edge in less than a minute, looking out from our vantage point over the endless North Sea to the horizon line beyond.
To our right the cliff tapers down into the bay, and so we head for steep stone steps that are straddled by an unusual-looking arch. A replica of a whale’s jawbone, the original (and real) jawbone arch was erected In 1853, as a nod to the town’s successful whaling history. Just to the left of the arch is a statue of Captain Cook – famed for his voyages to Australia and New Zealand – who learned his seafaring skills right here in Whitby.
The arch perfectly frames St Mary’s Church and behind it, Whitby Abbey, which are perched precariously on the edge of the East Cliff across the bay. They loom dark and imposing, with weathered gravestones scattered in their wake, and it’s no wonder that upon spying it Stoker thought it would be the perfect spot for his count to lurk in the shadows.
We wind our way down the steps into the bay in search of breakfast, and the town is already plenty busy with families milling about in the morning sun as sea captains call out along the Pier Road, tempting passers-by into boat rides. We grab coffees and a couple of hot rolls and pitch up on a bench, devouring them as we watch the boats bob gently on the water.
Once satiated, we head over the swing bridge and meander up through narrow streets full of little shops until we reach the 199 steps – the very ones that Stoker had Dracula, in black dog form, leap up when his ship ran aground in Whitby.
Despite the clear blue skies overhead, it starts to drizzle as we begin our pilgrimage. Fortunately the rain has cried off by the time we reach the top, and we are greeted by crooked gravestones erupting from the uneven ground, aged by both time and the salty sea air.
We take a stroll amongst the tombstones (a favourite pastime of mine as you well know) and the freshly cut grass juxtaposes life with death as we wade through spent blades.
The graveyard stretches right to the very edge of the cliff, and as we look out to sea and the great nothingness, I think that this would be mighty fine final resting place indeed.
There’s a chill in the air up here and I rub my fingers together to keep them working as we move on past the little church to the abbey. It’s set slightly back behind walls, but as we enter and see it in its full glory, it’s truly breathtaking.
The original abbey was founded by an Anglo-Saxon abbess in 657, but was abandoned at some point in the ninth century, most likely following Viking raids. It was then rebuilt as a Benedictine monastery in the 11th century, then rebuilt once more in the 13th century in the gothic style, and it is these ruins which lie before us.
The north transept remains at its full height, with tall pointed windows bereft of what would likely have been ornate stained glass windows. Its loftiness draws your eye to the heavens, and with the bright afternoon sun reflecting off the stone work, it’s as if the ruins are glowing.
The whole place has an air of magic and mystery about it and it’s easy to see how this gothic ruin on the sweeping Yorkshire headlands simply had to make it into Stoker’s novel.
After circling the ruins and admiring them from every angle, we head back down the steps, rewarding ourself with ice cream cones and a doggy ice cream for the pooch. We sit on the water’s edge to eat them before submitting to a captain’s proposal to take a boat ride.
We motor out of the bay and it’s a pleasant but choppy ride as we come about to face the bay head on. The abbey catches your eye instantly, and it’s easy to imagine the landmark being used by boats and ships, a welcome sight for weary sailors signalling their imminent return home. I get a chill though as I imagine what it would have been like to spot the abbey from the decks of Stoker’s doomed Demeter: transfixed by a formidable silhouette as the ill-fated ship edged ever closer with its ghoulish cargo.
Once we are back on dry land we head for a well-earned drink in the sun, sticking it out until the last bit of heat drops away, then we grab fish and chips to take back to our cosy hideout. We sit in the big bay window, watching as the sun goes down and the abbey grows dark until it is indistinguishable from the inky night sky, and all that remains is the darkness.